Feb 27 2007

Black Belt roads eyed for upgrade

Birmingham News

By Mary Orndorff

The state's focus on improving roads in Alabama's Black Belt gained a government ally Monday when the Delta Regional Authority announced a proposal to spend $18.5 billion on highways in eight states over the next 20 years.

The six-year-old Delta Regional Authority wants to widen and improve 3,843 miles of roads throughout the Mississippi Delta to enhance economic development in the historically depressed area.

In Alabama, the projects cover 383 miles, mostly in west Alabama, with an estimated cost of $803 million. The list was compiled from the Alabama Department of Transportation's existing long-range highway plan, and Alabama's top highway official endorsed it.

"This is wise for a region of the country that needs the investment," said Rex Nelson, the alternate federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority.

Knowing Congress won't come up with $18.5 billion immediately, proponents say their plan is meant to be a 20-year guide for highway spending. They will deliver their plan, which cost $140,000 to produce, to Congress, and leave it up to the governors and members of Congress from each state to lobby for specific highway money each year. It does not give any one state priority over another.

The Alabama projects include 47 different improvements along the U.S. 43 corridor, the U.S. 80 corridor and the U.S. 84 corridor, including widening most of the roadways from two to four lanes.

The corridors crisscross the Black Belt, from Mobile to Interstate 20/59 in Greene County; from the Mississippi line to Montgomery; and from southern Choctaw County to Interstate 65 in Evergreen. On the east side, it also includes improvements along U.S. 80 between Macon County and Phenix City. Some of the projects are already in line for regular highway funding in coming years.

The plan has a natural ally in Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who originally persuaded Congress to add 20 Alabama counties to the Delta Regional Authority's coverage area and is a longtime advocate of securing federal taxpayer dollars for roadwork. In early 2004, he proposed creating a highway system for the Delta Regional Authority, similar to the 3,090-mile plan connected to the 42-year-old Appalachian Regional Commission.

"The link between transportation infrastructure and economic development is unmistakable," Shelby said in a prepared statement. "Establishing a transportation program specifically for the Delta Region is an integral step towards promoting economic development, raising the standard of living, and improving quality of life in this traditionally impoverished region."

Since 1965, the Appalachian Development Highway System has built or now has under construction 2,645 miles across the region, including Corridor X.